ROCKY HILL — Notre Dame-West Haven had lost to Fairfield Prep, and then lost to Darien to fall below .500 on Feb. 21. They didn’t look like a team about to go on a run to the CIAC boys hockey final on Tuesday.
Then came senior night against NFI at Bennett Rink on Feb. 23.
“For senior night, I believe you play your regular rotation. Honor the seniors at the banquet, that’s my belief,” said longtime coach but first-year Notre Dame coach Larry Vieira on Thursday at the CIAC’s media day.
That meant that senior David Anania wasn’t starting in goal that night. Vieira said he encourages the players to come to him with concerns, and this time, they had one.
“They … wanted David, our senior goalie, who’s been a warrior, a great goalie, accepted his role as a backup: They wanted him to start,” Vieira said.
“At first I said no. I reconsidered. The kids had some valid points, and I went with it.”
The Green Knights won 5-1 that night and haven’t lost since. On Tuesday night at Ingalls Rink, they’ll play for a state championship for the first time in six years.
That senior-night moment has become a focal point of the sixth-seeded team’s run to Ingalls.
“It just means a lot. The past four years, I’ve been there for them, and it’s great knowing they have my back,” Anania said.
“It definitely brought us together. Ever since then, we haven’t lost a game, knock on wood.”
They’ve won five in a row to improve to 13-9-1, getting revenge against third-seeded Darien in the quarterfinals, then taking out second-seeded Northwest Catholic 3-2 in the semifinals on goals five seconds apart by senior Mike Card.
“We really stepped it up,” senior Ian Hayden said. “We had our ups and downs, obviously, through the season, but we definitely turned it around through the most important time.”
Players have settled into roles, and sophomore Connor Smith in net has been strong.
“We just really came together as a team,” senior defenseman Kevin Millea said.
But Vieira has known from the start this would be a work in progress.
Arriving in September from NFI, the coach said he saw habits that needed breaking. They had to learn to compete for the full 45-minute game, to develop discipline.
Notre Dame was 1-1 after two games and 9-9-1 going into its last regular-season game, and in between, it had been a .500 team six other times.
“We started off, it wasn’t the best,” Hayden said, “but we came together. We bought into the system, and it worked out well for us.”
Waiting for the Green Knights in the final is their old rival, fifth-seeded Fairfield Prep (14-9-1). The teams split in the regular season, an overtime win for the Green Knights at home on Jan. 5 and that late-season Jesuits win at the Wonderland of Ice.
“We’ve got to work hard. It comes down to that,” Hayden said. “We’re both skill teams, but you come out hard, you practice well, that’s it.”